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By John Biggs
June 18, 2018
Civilization hums along with the help of the various systems put in place to facilitate movement, not just from place to place, but also the movement of commerce, communication, information and resources. This intricately designed system is collectively known as infrastructure, and it forms the basis for our society, the bones upon which our every aspiration and advance are hung.
It may seem abstract to consider feats of engineering such as roadways, bridges, power lines and water pipes as “technology” per se, but according to the late Princeton engineering professor David Billington, the full picture of what comprises technology is much broader than we would typically think.
“Technology, in the minds of many people, consists of machines. But machines provide only half a definition of technology: the other half consists of structures...which form the physical foundations of society,” he presciently wrote in 1974, well before the emergence of internet transformed the definition of infrastructure to include Internet of Things and smart infrastructure.
The internet itself is underpinned by an elaborate infrastructure of computers, servers and hard drives, all interconnected by satellites and cables. In turn, all other technologies in today’s world piggyback on those physical systems in order to function. Society as it exists is dependent on infrastructure to connect places, people, resources and information. Without those permanent, traversable connections, maintaining the world as we know it would be impossible.
It stands to reason that robust support of existing infrastructure, as well as devising improvements as technology advances, is essential. Yet in the U.S., infrastructure all too often is a back-burnered priority when it comes to government spending. According to Forbes, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the U.S. needs to invest more than $2 trillion over the next decade in order to avoid catastrophic consequences. The deficiencies in our nation’s infrastructure spans everything from roadways to dams to airports to electrical grids, even our park systems and educational infrastructure. The ASCE says that failing to address these critical deficiencies over the next decade could result in nearly $4 trillion in lost GDP, $7 trillion in lost business revenue, and 2.5 million lost jobs, according to Forbes.
The last few decades brought with them an explosion in the variety of world-changing technologies, which have become so ingrained in our way of life we take the underlying physical systems that enable their existence for granted. We flip a light switch and the power simply goes on, we open a web browser and the internet simply works. Although it feels like a kind of magic, the networks residing in the background that enable those modern marvels are very much rooted in the physical world, and require attention and updating to ensure their continued functionality.
Cornell technology studies professor Stephen Jackson noted the paradox that exists in the gulf between our dependence on these infrastructure systems and our seeming lack of attention to their upkeep, or the potential consequences of their ceasing to function.
“Technologies and practices which rise (or sink) to the level of infrastructure are frequently invisible until they breakdown,” he wrote.
This can be equally applied to our roads, bridges and tunnels as it can to the interdependent network of computers, cables and satellites that undergird our modern technological world. According to Jackson, a renewed importance is needed around maintaining and repairing all forms of infrastructure.
“Moving maintenance and repair back to the center of thinking around media and technology may help to develop deeper and richer stories of relationality to the technological artifacts and systems that surround us, positioning the world of things as an active component and partner in the ongoing project of building more humane, just, and sustainable collectives,” he wrote.
Life as we know it depends on the uninterrupted operation of everything from our highway systems to our electrical grids to the servers powering the internet. If those pathways are neglected, they will eventually break down, plunging our world back in time decades or centuries, effectively stopping human advancement in its tracks.
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